Cuba commutes sentences; Only one person still on death row

By Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Cuba, December 8, 2010 – Human rights activists are pleased with the decision by Cuba’s Supreme Court to commute to 30 years in prison the death sentences of two Salvadoran men convicted of terrorism. But dissidents continue to call for complete abolition of the death penalty.

“This is good news that we’ve been waiting for since 2008,” Elizardo Sánchez with the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a dissident group that puts out regular reports on the human rights situation here, told IPS.

Sánchez was referring to an April 2008 announcement by President Raúl Castro that nearly all death sentences had been commuted to life imprisonment or 30 years in jail.

The cases of the two Salvadoran convicts, René Cruz León and Otto René Rodríguez Llerena, were still pending decisions by the Supreme Court, which were finally handed down last Friday and this Monday, respectively.

The last person on death row in Cuba is Cuban-American Humberto Eladio Real Suárez, who was arrested in October 1994 after disembarking in Cuba by boat, armed with assault rifles, stealing a car and killing the driver. 

In 1999, Cruz León and Rodríguez Llerena were found guilty after they confessed to planting bombs in several hotels and a restaurant in Cuba in 1997, as part of a plan to scare off tourists, one of the country’s main sources of foreign exchange. A 32-year-old Italian tourist, Fabio di Celmo, was killed in one of the explosions, and 11 people were wounded.

During the trial, Cruz León testified that a fellow Salvadoran, Francisco Chávez Abarca, recruited him when he was working at the “Geo Rent a Car” agency in El Salvador. 

In July Venezuela extradited Chávez Abarca to Cuba, where he is in prison and under investigation.

Sánchez said he hoped the Supreme Court, which is considering an appeal in the case of Real Suárez, will also commute his sentence, thus further reinforcing the government’s de facto moratorium on capital punishment in place since 2000.

The moratorium was only interrupted in 2003 by the execution of three of 11 armed individuals who hijacked a ferry with dozens of passengers on board, with the aim of defecting to the United States. 

The incident was part of a spate of hijackings of boats and planes by people attempting to make it to the United States.

The executions triggered an international outcry and drew criticism at home.

Sánchez said that since 2003, at least “half a dozen” prisoners facing a possible death sentence for serious common crimes were handed life sentences instead. The authorities “are apparently avoiding convictions involving capital punishment,” the activist said. 

Life sentences were introduced in a 1999 penal reform.

“The bad news now is that we don’t see any signals that the government is considering abolition of the death penalty, which still figures in several articles of the penal code,” the dissident lamented. 

“No hostile incident has been reported in 11 years, that would justify keeping capital punishment on the books as a kind of Sword of Damocles,” he maintained.

The Cuban government has stated that it will not abolish the death penalty, under the argument that it has a deterrent effect for “mercenary terrorists at the service of the empire (the United States),” and that eliminating it would “endanger the life and security” of Cubans.

But it has also clarified that, although the death penalty still forms part of this country’s legislation, “Cuba comprehends and respects the arguments by the international movement calling for abolition or a moratorium,” which is why Cuba has not voted against these initiatives in the United Nations.

According to the government, “in all these years, there have been 713 acts of terrorism against Cuba, 56 of which have occurred since 1990, organised and financed from U.S. territory, leaving a total of 3,478 people dead and 2,099 injured and disabled.”

The list includes the October 1976 bombing of a Cuban Airline passenger plane shortly after it took off from Barbados. All 73 people on board were killed.

Cuban exile and naturalised Venezuelan citizen Luis Posada Carriles, who was convicted and jailed in Venezuela for masterminding the bombing of the plane — but escaped from prison in 1985 — is also wanted in connection with the 1997 hotel bombings carried out by Cruz León and Rodríguez Llerena.

Posada Carriles, a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency operative, is now living in the United States, where he was arrested in 2005 on immigration charges but is out on bail and awaiting trial, set for Jan. 10 in El Paso, Texas.

He is charged with lying about how he entered the United States and for his involvement in the Havana hotel bombings. 

U.S. media reports say the trial will be the first time evidence collected by authorities in Cuba and by the FBI will be presented in a U.S. court to prove his role in the hotel bombings.

Posada Carriles has been living in Miami, Florida for nearly six years. For years both Cuba and Venezuela have unsuccessfully demanded his extradition from the United States. (IPS)

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